Keeping Halal in the Ming dynasty

As regular readers know, I am interested in the question of how people are defined as Chinese. One nice bit of data comes from Hans Kuhner. He is looking at a pair of families in the early Ming and trying to figure out what, for them, is Chinese behavior. Although today the Yuan-Ming transition is sometimes presented as an uprising of native Chinese against their Mongol rulers and a restoration of Han rule, in fact the ethnic transition was a lot more complex, as shown in the case of two families.

One of the families is the Ding lineage of Quanzhou, once a major port for international trade. The Dings won their first jinshi degree in 1501. In their genealogies the first ancestor is Jiezhai, and all the early ancestors have Chinese names and are presented as wholly Chinese. It is only much later that it comes out that the first ancestor was also called Sayyid Ajall, a Bokharan who served as a governor under the Yuan. Sayyid stayed on in China after the fall of the Yuan, changing his name and attempting to deflect the considerable hostility towards semu people in the early Ming. This hostility was entirely popular. The state did not order purges of non-Chinese and in fact went to some length to avoid ethnic trouble. The Dings, however, got in a good deal of trouble over the years, as political opponents accused them of false registration, largely, it seems as a way of getting even with the Dings, not because people were so concerned with ethnicity. A later descendent, Ding Yanxia, described the family’s background this way.

We cannot know in detail where our family (jia) has come from before the time of Jiezhai. As far as religion (jiao) is concerned, in former times they seem to have followed customs that were not yet civilized. For example, they did not change the clothes [of the dead person] before it was put into the coffin, and they did not use wood for the coffin. The burial took place already on the third day after death, and [the corpse] was only covered with a very thin layer. The mourning attire was made of cotton, and when praying, there were no soul tab­lets for the ancestors, and no sacrificial offerings. On meetings, people bowed to the west at the time of sunset. Every first month [of the year] there was a period of fasting and one was allowed to eat only after sunset, while during the day, people were hungry. God (shen) was revered only with aromatic herbs, there were no sacrifices of wine and fruit and no paper money [as sacrifice] was burned. When reciting the holy book (qing jing) one imitated the traditional sound of the barbarian (yi) language, without understanding its meaning and not even trying to understand it. This was done on both happy and unhappy occasions. It was only allowed to eat meat that was slaughtered at home, and pork was forbidden. One regularly had to take a bath, and without bathing one was nor allowed to attend worship. As for clothing, cotton was preferred to silk, and on all occasions, cleanliness was desirable. When I was young, I still could see these customs personally. … Today, we burn paper money in the sacrifices for the ancestors, cattle has not to be slaughtered at home, all wear hemp as mourning attire, no more cotton. Sometimes, people wait as long as ten years before the burial. On both happy and unhappy occasions, Daoist and Buddhist monks are invited. Pork is eaten, and there is increasing conformity with [Chinese] ritual. However, there still are some who are proud of not fol­lowing the [Chinese] ritual. With regard to the desirability of cleanliness, I have seen no reduction. Alas, as far as the teachings of the Noble Man on ritual are concerned, some maintain that it should be based on the traditions of one’s coun­try and should be adhered to without the slightest change, Others maintain that some [aspects of] ritual can be different while others should be adhered to, with their practicality as criterion. What does “practicality” mean? It should conform to the principle of heaven and to human emotions. If they do not harm these two, why should we change them just in order to conform to the views of society?

Very enlightened. Of course he is defending his own family. The quote as a whole reflects the long debate about how strictly one needs to follow the forms of ritual. It is also typical in that it focuses almost entirely on ritual and especially funerary ritual as the most important aspect of proper behavior. While the family did largely conform to Chinese ritual, they also kept some non-standard behaviors, perhaps as a way of distinguishing themselves from others. Besides the emphasis on cleanliness, the family also continued to not offer pork to the ancestors, although they were offered wine. Not offering wine would be a pretty serious violation of Chinese ritual. Offering other foods but not pork would be fine I suppose.

Not all families were as accepting. The Lin/Li lineage of Quanzhou split over the issue of Islam. The issue, according to Kuhner, was that a member of the lineage, married a Persian woman in Hormuz and converted to Islam. This led to a split in the lineage. The reasons for this were explained in a 1426 text that is “one of the earliest explicit refutations of foreign beliefs in Ming times.”

“When the Yuan lost power, there were many semu people, and in our Quanzhou, they were the most numerous. Their families expanded, they ran amok and oppressed our people. Till today, although they were entered in the household registers, there are among them real semu, false semu, and also those who followed their wives to become semu, or who followed their mothers in practicing divergent customs. They thus brought disorder into our race (zulei), they despise our rules and do not respect our morality. Why is that so? As far as the sacrifices to Heaven are concerned, the Chinese (zhong xia) after the Yuan erected a mound in the south of the capital. They used sacrificial utensils made of porcelain and also animals for sacrifice, and nobody under the rank of Prince (gonghou) dared to overstep his place. Now, even the commoners among the semu are allowed to keep images of [their] god (tian) at their homes and pray to them.” When we [Chinese] are in mourning, we beat our breasts and cry and wail, put gems in the mouth [of the corpse], cover it with a shroud, and enclose it in a wooden coffin. Our mourning attire is made of hemp, and from morning to evening libations are offered. We prepare feathers to adorn the coffin, build a wall and select a burial site to bury it there. We erect soul tablets in the shrine in order to make regular sacrifices. The semu, however, sing and beat drums, embalm [the corpse] with mercury and adorn it with flow­ers, They wear no mourning attire, they have coffins of tong wood without lids, they bury [their dead] in the wilderness, and prepare neither tablets nor sacrifices. We adorn ourselves with orderly clothing, correct boots and belts, and jade pendants. But the semu wear turbans and coarse woolen cloth and go barefoot. We observe the seven proscriptions and three abstentions. What we call abstinence consists in not drinking alcohol and not eating [impure] food. The abstinence of the semu consists in not eating during the day, but only at night, not eating what is bought on the market, but eating only what one killed oneself, not eating pork, but only cattle feeding on hay. Our body, skin and hair were bequeathed on us by our parents, and we do not dare to violate them. This is filial piety. Among the semu, however, only those who were incised are regarded as adults, Their writing is like worms, and their speech is like the [howling] of owls. We Chinese can neither decipher [their texts] nor under­stand [their speech]. Alas! The ways of the semu are identical with the customs of the Yi and Di. The Shying says: “The Man and Yi are bringing disorder into our vast land/’63 The Shijing says: “He resisted the Rong and Di.” This is even more so in our Quanzhou. Although it is part of the Minhai region, everybody knew the way of the former kings, adhered to the Mean and sincer­ity and practiced them without failing. Recently, however, your great-uncle, although descended from scholars, was seduced by the customs of the semu and did not attain to enlightenment. He did not revere his ancestors, but those of others, he practiced the customs of the Yi and Di, and caused his descend­ants to become barbarians. Why is this so? It is because he was deluded by his sympathy for the strange and exotic. Alas, Han Yu has said: “[Confucius] ac­cepted those Yi and Di who followed the customs of the Middle States as Chi­nese, while he regarded those Chinese who followed the customs of the Yi and Di as barbarians.”” Today, I, Guangqi, when compiling this genealogy, record his name and his deeds, but have to refute his mistakes, in fear that the descend­ants might follow his bad example. [I am writing this] in order to warn you seriously.”

One of the things I found most interesting about this is how much more explicitly political it is. As with the earlier text ritual, and especially funerary ritual, is crucial. In this critical reading, however, the author also points out that Muslims overstep their place by worshiping Heaven directly and also that they can be analogized directly to the ancient enemies of the central states. I mostly find these interesting because they are great passages, and the differences between them can probably be explained by the fact that one is hostile to foreign customs and one is not. Still, I find it interesting that the critical writer casts it as what might be called a “national” issue. Maybe the anti-foreign religion thing works better in that context.

Hans Kuhner “The Barbarians writing is like Worms, and their Speech is like the Screeching of Owls” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft 2001 151:2 pp. 407-429


  1. Facinating, I couldn’t stop reading. The families mentioned I suppose are now Han chinese families, no longer Muslims. Where do the Huizu, who’re still Muslims, come in? Forgive me if my question sounds silly.

  2. I think the families now would clearly identify themselves as non-Muslims. Li Zhi, the famous philosopher, was from the second of these two families and he certainly did not call himself a Muslim. The Hui are sort of a tricky question. There are actually a lot of different Hui groups who are all the same in that they are ethnically Chinese and religiously Muslim, but very different in that they are of very different descent and cultural background. There are some Hui on the southeast cost who are descended from international merchants like the people in these stories. There are supposedly 4 mosques and some 90,000 Hui in Fujian

    The bulk of the Hui, and most of the other Muslim groups, like the Uighers, live in the Northwest

  3. I believe the English word ‘barbarian’ came from the Latin word ‘Barbarian’ which is translated as ‘foreigner’. The reason for the word is that the Romans thought that the sounds ‘foreigners’ made sounded like ‘ba-ba’. The equivalent terminology for ‘Ba-ba’ in Chinese is ‘Ta-ta’- ie ‘Tartar’.

    I think the view of the Han Chinese of the other Mongoloid tribes within their vicinity is that they are simply non-Han Chinese rather than the current meaning of the English word ‘barbarian’. Indeed, Mao in his Long March had to abandon his children with the hill tribe (non-Han) people for safety. Hence Han people never really thought that the hill tribe peoples or any other Mongoloid people were not good enough for the Hans to associate with.

  4. In response to the post of J Chan, I have the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary in stating that the English word barbarian derives originally from the Greek. By contrast, the Chinese term Dada (韃靼) is a comparatively specific term for nomads to the north, emerging in the late Tang. It is equivalent, as J Chan points out, to the word Tatar, but Tatar (to cite again the OED) is the name “by which the people in question either called themselves or were designated by their neighbours,” i.e. it was a proper name rather than a generic term like barbarian (which applied generally to all non-Greek speakers), so there is no real equivalence between the European terms for “barbarian” and the Chinese “Dada/Tatar” in either origin or meaning.
    In regard to the larger issue of whether the English “barbarian” is a suitable translation for more general Chinese terms for foreigners, such as Rong, Di, Man, and especially Yi, I think this is a highly complicated issue that would require many posts to sort out. Obviously, given the long history of the use of such terms the precise range of meaning in any given case depends on the context. As I recall from my researches, although I couldn`t give a chapter-and-verse citation, Qianlong himself distinguishes between individual uses of the term “Yi” in the Siku quanshu editorial process, seeing some uses as a harmless neutral term for foreigner, and other uses as carrying insidious pejorative overtones of barbarism, and therefore worthy of elimination.
    I think etymology can help us out. To cite again briefly from the OED, in regard to the word barbarous: “The Gr. word had probably a primary reference to speech, and is compared with L. balbus stammering. The sense-development in ancient times was (with the Greeks) ‘foreign, non-Hellenic,’ later ‘outlandish, rude, brutal’; (with the Romans) ‘not Latin nor Greek,’ then ‘pertaining to those outside the Roman empire’; hence ‘uncivilized, uncultured.” What is true in Western languages, it seems to me, may well be true in Chinese. A word of comparatively neutral origins can accumulate associated meanings over time, so that a term harmless in itself can become quite negative. Many English racial slurs originate in this sense.
    Whether “barbarian” is a suitable translation for terms like “Yi” is certainly worth debate (and, indeed, has attracted a fair amount of scholarly attention). The problem, ultimately, may be that “Yi” – and here I think of Qing period usage in reference to Westerners – was as close as a Chinese scholar could come to being neutral (because far more pejorative terms existed), yet was not actually a neutral term simply meaning foreign because it still forms one pole of a Chinese-civilized/non Chinese-uncivilized distinction.
    Anyhow, I thank Alan for his interesting post, because case studies of how individuals understood the differences between Chinese and non-Chinese are far more interesting than theoretical arguments.

  5. “The word “Barbarian” comes into English from Medieval Latin barbarinus, from Latin barbaria, from Latin barbarus, from the ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (barbaros) which meant a non-Greek, someone whose (first) language was not Greek. The word is imitative, the bar-bar representing the impression of random hubbub produced by hearing spoken a language that one cannot understand, similar to blah blah, babble or rhubarb in modern English. Related imitative forms are found in other Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit barbara-, “stammering” or “one with curly hair” (This term was mainly used by Romans to refer to the Germanic tribes), and the forms are connected to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *baba-, “to stammer”.”

    I’ve pasted the above from Wikipedia. I have just check the word ‘barbarian’ in the Oxford English Reference Dictionary which stated the meaning as (2) uncivilized.[orig(inally) of any foreigner with a different language or customs: F(rench) barbaricus.

    So yes, the original word was from Greek, but it came into English usage from Latin. I do remember from my Latin primer that the Latin word ‘barbarian’ is translated into the (modern) English word ‘foreigner’.

    Like Mosca pointed out it would take many posts (if indeed ever possible) to sort out whether the modern English word ‘barbarian’ is a suitable translation for the Chinese words. My feeling is that the attitude of the Han Chinese towards other non-Han Mongoloid peoples was that these people were/are simply non Han-speaking Chinese and not ‘barbarians’ as in the modern meaning of the ‘English’ word; so the word ‘barbarian’ would not be a suitable word in translation. The Hans did not seem to treat them as a separate race, a separate nationality perhaps, but not a separate race. How the other Mongoloid peoples view the Han is of course another matter.

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  7. I have put together a huge collection of references and accounts of islam in china, from the maritime period, through to the yuan, up until the panthay rebellion and the xinjian sultanate in the 19th century, along with conflict with the communists in the 1950’s etc

    as well as the accounts of the muslim development of wushu during the qing period

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